Central Province tends to get left in the shadow of the national capital Port Moresby. It would be equally easy to say that Moresby draws people, water, vegetables, recreational facilities and a wealth of historical and cultural significance from Central Province. Central should not be thought of as a ‘Cinderella’ province.
Central lies on the south coast of PNG and extends inland to the Owen Stanley mountain range. The great majority of the population are drawn into Moresby to work in government or business or to sell fruit, vegetables, fish and betel nut in one of the many markets. Otherwise subsistence farming and fishing are the main activities. Central has a particularly strong athletics record and are prominent in rugby league, cricket and volleyball. There are no less than 32 local languages but there are several distinct groups with strong traditions.
The Motu, who live in the coastal areas were courageous seagoing people who took off once a year in their lagatois, big sailing canoes, to exchange pots and shells for sago and logs from the Elema people of eastern Gulf Province. This ‘Hiri’ trade is celebrated annually in Port Moresby with the Hiri Moale show. The Motu people also traded pots, axes and shell with the Mailu islanders in eastern Central and with people from Milne Bay. The Motu co-existed with the Koitabu people living in the hinterland with whom they exchanged fish and shell for vegetables. The Motu-Koitabu were more wary of the Koiari people who lived in the hills around the Sogeri plateau.
Even today the Koiari people are feared and tourists are warned to enter their lands with caution. A caution that might be worth attention were it not for the delights on offer in the Varirata National Park which occupies much of the Koiari’s traditional hunting ground. The Koiari lived in tree houses. There is now some dispute about whether this was so that they could look out for enemies or whether the houses were used as a retreat in times of clan dispute. They hunted wallabies, cuscus, and other forest animals They also grew crops around the village using slash and burn agriculture, so most of the forest would have been cleared some time in the past and has regenerated.
The National Park has created a number of walks and picnic sites which make a delightful outing for Moresby families. The more sharp eyed might spot a bird of paradise. There are many varieties of trees, plants and butterflies. There are pitcher plants and fern baskets and many sorts of fungi. It is a naturalists dream. Some of the trails are quite jungle like considering the proximity to the big city. It is possible to stay overnight in Varirata – an attractive option for birdwatchers who want to catch a glimpse of some rare species.
There are other day-trips into Central Province. The Gerebu Plateau located near Doe village about 45 minutes drive from Moresby has a natural lake and a mini waterfall which never dries up even during the driest of dry seasons. There are caves which are rarely explored either by local people or outsiders because village elders have restricted visiting for fear of disturbing resident spirits. One of the caves has unusual pillars of rock which the local people call stone posts – they seem to change their shape every time eyes are set on them. The Gerebu plateau has clear, clean creeks and rivers rapid and deep enough for diving, rafting and canoeing.
Linking the north and south coasts, the Kokoda Trail was first used by miners in the 1890’s but it was World War 2 that ‘put it on the map’. After the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941 the Japanese moved on PNG sending the navy to Port Moresby and the army round the back via Popondetta. What they hadn’t realised was that the trail was a switchback footpath across some of the most rugged country in the world, plunging up and down, the gullies infested by leeches. There was no chance of maintaining a supply line. The courage and suffering of those who fought there has never been forgotten. The Kokoda Trail is one of the most popular bush walks in all of PNG.